By David Gutierrez
Watching too much television can actually cause harmful changes to a child’s brain structure, according to a study conducted by researchers from Tohoku University in Japan and published in the journal Cerebral Cortex. The more television watched, the more severe the changes.
“TV viewing is directly or indirectly associated with the neurocognitive development of children,” the researchers wrote. “At least some of the observed associations are not beneficial and guardians of children should consider these effects when children view TV for long periods of time.”
The researchers conducted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans on the brains of 276 children between the ages of five and 18, evenly split between girls and boys. The children and their caregivers provided detailed information about how much time each child spent watching television per day. The amount of television viewed varied between zero and four hours per day, averaging about two.
TV-viewing brains are less developed
The researchers found that the more time that children spent watching television, the more gray matter that they had in the region at the anterior of the frontal lobe known as the frontopolar cortex. And while this might sound like a good thing, higher IQs and higher verbal intelligence have actually been linked with a thinner frontopolar cortex both in this study and in prior ones.
“These areas show developmental cortical thinning during development, and children with superior IQs show the most vigorous cortical thinning in this area,” the researchers wrote.
The neurological changes associated with television viewing were the same in boys and girls, the researchers found.
“These anatomical correlates may be linked to previously known effects of TV viewing on verbal competence, aggression, and physical activity,” the researchers speculated. “In particular, the present results showed effects of TV viewing on the frontopolar area of the brain, which has been associated with intellectual abilities.”
Read a book instead
Numerous studies have established that TV viewing can have harmful effects on children, particularly on the very young. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of two not be allowed to watch any television at all, and that older children be limited to a maximum of two hours per day.
According to the researchers, the study is the first to examine the effect of television on the brain’s “structural development.” Because of the study design, it is also unclear whether television viewing led directly to the observed brain changes, or whether the changes came from related factors such as less time spent engaging in social or physical activities.
The researchers speculated that part of the problem of television might be that, in contrast with activities such as learning to play a musical instrument, television viewing offers no variety in pace or complexity.
“When this type of increase in level of experience does not occur with increasing experience, there is less of an effect on cognitive functioning,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, a separate study, conducted recently by researchers from Emory University, found that college students who read the novel Pompeii by Robert Harris showed increased conductivity in regions of the brain associated with language receptivity. These neurological changes began on the first day of reading and lasted for five days after completion of the book.
“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” researcher Gregory Berns said. “But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”
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